The daughter of an impoverished artist, Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) grows up longing to escape her lowly origins. She goes from one governess gig to another, “social-mountaineering” along the way. She’s employed by the family of her friend Amelia (Romola Garai) for a while, then she works for Mr. Pitt (Bob Hoskins) before being taken under the wing of his bitchy but powerful sister (Eileen Atkins). When she secretly marries Pitt’s son Rawdon (James Purefoy), a soldier who wastes his “good blood” on gambling, she finds herself shunned from the high circles. But she might rise again with the help of the rich Mr. Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), who purchased a lot of her late father’s art and might want to add her to his collection…
Aaw, the exquisite dullness of bourgeois cinema, so intensely preoccupied with period detail, solemn men and pale girls. Nothing of consequence has to happen, nothing of interest has to be said, it’s all about the appearance of meaning and the pretense of sophistication. In the last few years the likes of Gosford Park, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and now “Vanity Fair” have graced our screens to make some revel in such intelligent entertainment while commoners like myself are supremely bored.
I hate these movies about snobbish old-timey Europeans who spend their life spoiling riches they didn’t earn. “My fortune is high but my birth is not, so I must marry a poor nobleman or a rich bourgeois like you. I would have liked a title… But with our combined fortunes, we can buy one!” What petty concerns! Are you yawning yet? In the genre’s best works, at least there is some passion and violence balancing out the stuffiness, but here all we get is dull drawing room shenanigans. Even the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo aren’t enough to shake the characters out of their pointless little social quarrels!
You might wonder why I bothered at all with this film if I expected to dislike it. There are two reasons for this. First, it was directed by Mira Nair, whose last two films (Monsoon Wedding and the extraordinary HBO-produced “Hysterical Blindess”) I loved. And then there’s my little Reese, who’s an adorable girl but also a resourceful actress. She went a long way in keeping my interest in the picture, but ultimately her smile and her corseted cleavage aren’t enough to save the film.
Mira Nair occasionally enlivens things with wonderful touches of her native India (Reese even gets to perform in a Bollywood number!) and she’s directing a capable cast (which, in addition to those mentioned above, also includes Jim Broadbent and Rhys Ifans), but “Vanity Fair” remains an inconsequential and uninvolving bore. Most frustrating is how, after endlessly meandering for more than two hours, it rushes and clumsily ties everything up in a spectacularly unconvincing happy end. I appreciate any opportunity to spend some time with my girlfriend Reese (and flirt with the equally scrumptious Romola behind her back), but I’ll stick to rewatching compulsively Election, Cruel Intentions and Legally Blonde, thank you very much.